What color are you?

This is not an inane quiz like one might find in popular magazines. It is rather a thought about how we, as English speakers , think and communicate. If I were to say ‘red’ or ‘blue’ or ‘yellow’ to you, what would you see? Apple sky sun? Sports car, water, sunflower? Would you see little squares of paint samples? or would you see numbers, 5, 3 and 2? What if I said house? or bread?

Even among English speakers, the idea of house can be one with a wrap-around porch, or a Victorian dwelling, or a modern bungalow. Bread can be sliced, rustic, round, white or whole wheat and so on.  So even among English speakers, basic words, for which we have universal shared knowledge, conjure up images that can be as varied as their consumers.

So what happens if we speak the same language out of necessity rather than culture?  A school for foreign students, for instance, usually uses English as a lingua franca.  House can now mean apartment, hut, or a basic cube made of concrete blocks; bread can be pita, injera, or ciabatta.  So communicating the fact that one might miss the bread from home, can entail a description of what is green mealie bread or any bread that does not conform to your idea of what bread is. Often though, the necessary clarification is lacking. And the conversation continues with one speaker with one idea if what bread or house may be and the other speaker, well, with another. Mismatches pile up as the conversation continues. Seems like we are now in the realm of unshared regional knowledge.

If you think of all the other permutations of two people of same, similar, dissimilar, or distinct cultures, the magnitude of unshared regional knowledge increases, sometimes to a limit where there is no common ground.  For instance, the notion of bread for a Westerner and an Asian differs considerably not only in their preparation but also in their use.

So far, I only talked about color, houses and bread.  Simple enough, yet complex in its own way.  What if we extrapolated shared and unshared (universal, regional and local) knowledge to more complex idea, like, right/wrong?

3 thoughts on “What color are you?

  1. Interesting metaphors that could go on and on. When I see bread I see a full rounded loaf that signals weight gain yet if I see pita I see responsible diet. If I say red white and blue, do you see freedom or do you see oppression ? Yet if I say blues reds and whites I see a Christmas tree.


  2. Seated around my dinner table the other night were, amongst others, a linguist, a doctor, a psychologist and two Buddhists. We got into a fascinating conversation about how our use and choice of words often lead to false expectations and understandings on the parts of both the speaker and the listener, from the perspectives of these various disciplines. Seizing the moment, I poached your excellent metaphor and offered it by way of a summing up. It led instead to a flurry of further extrapolations and examples. Good stuff!


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